Neighborhood Character is Not Just the Built Environment

highland water tower 2Since I advocate for change in St Paul, an often Sisyphean task against the forces of KSPB, I often think about neighborhood character and what it means – especially what it means to different people. I have also struggled to find empathy and understanding for views that don’t exactly align with my own, and I really enjoyed Eric’s comment from a recent post about having this be the start of a conversation, not the end of it. It is easier to deal with opposing positions by categorizing those that disagree into stereotypes.

But what if we looked at “neighborhood character” through this definition:

“The complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation.”

Character discussions usually focus around a changing of the built environment, whether that is upzoning or bike lanes, but I’d like to take a slightly different look. What if the underlying feelings or attachment has more to do with a nostalgia, not to a particular instance of the built environment, for a hypothetical sense of “ethical traits”?

First, I believe that these “ethical traits” never really existed to the extent that people hold in their memories. The “good old days” were always more complicated than we imagine. This is good news because we can concentrate on the present and future without worry about duplicating some unrealistic idealized past. That said, I will acknowledge that until the 1950’s/60’s there was much more urban interconnectedness. Back then, the a built environment relied more on walking and transit to local commercial nodes, rather than dispersed amenities that required single-occupancy vehicles to travel vast distances. With that in mind, it would seem that current “neighborhood character” and parking enthusiasts are actually actively working against bringing this sort of interconnectedness back to St Paul.

Second, the “neighborhood character” is probably not what one assumes it to be anyway. For example, Highland Park is 45-50% renters but I’d bet good money that most people assume it is much lower. Why? Single family homes (SFHs) are prevalent in most of St Paul, especially Highland Park, but they are also very inefficient uses of space when compared to apartment buildings. This gives the appearance and feel of living in an area that is majority SFHs when that simply is not the case.


Ramsey County data showing SFHs vs Multi-family

Red: Single Family Homes, Browns: Multi-Family properties

Furthermore, ~55% of St Paul households own one or no cars. Anecdotally, my wife and I own a single car but rarely use it and commute via transit or bike. But if you go to any public meeting, people regularly talk about how St Paulites need their cars, most likely because that’s how they personally get around, and they assume the same of everyone else. Here’s another stat that contradicts a commonly-stated opinion: ~⅓ of St Paulites have lived in their current home for less than 7 years and ~70% have a longevity of less than 15 years.

Finally, we can listen to President Obama’s advice: “change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” If we want to see a friendly and empathic “neighborhood character”, we’ll need to start by looking in the mirror. When you find yourself driving on Jefferson, take a deep breath and remember that the cyclist “slowing you down” is a neighbor, a person, probably a father/mother, brother/sister, child, etc. If you’re upset about a new development proposal, remember that the city belongs to all of us, even those that aren’t yet here. Allowing new housing means more people get to experience our great corner of the world. Finally, from a direct action standpoint, cities are the front lines in the fight against climate change.

To me, “neighborhood character” is completely subjective. We’ll never all agree on a definition, but we can find common ground. A bike lane or 5-story building does not destroy “neighborhood character” any more than a parking lot or single-family homes do. By moving past the idea that there is a single character to the city, we can begin to find community in a shared goal to increase human connections.

Mike Sonn

About Mike Sonn

Mike lives in Saint Paul.